The Iago Problem

January 31, 2004 | 40 comments
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A while ago we had some discussion about a popular question among church members: why there are not more great LDS writers, more “Mormon Shakespeares.” Various ideas were suggested, among them that church callings take up too much time for a nascent Mormon Shakespeare to begin filling up her folios.

Let me articulate another reason, hinted at (but not explicitly discussed) in the earlier thread: Church members have an Iago Problem. We are generally incapable of creating believable truly evil characters. We just don’t have the skill set to breathe life into an Iago. And without Iago, there can be no Shakespeare.

For those unfamiliar with Othello, Iago was the traitorous villain whose scheming led to Othello’s killing of his own wife. Iago is generally agreed upon as one of the more evil people in great literature; there is really nothing redeeming about him.

It’s not just Iago, either. Shakespeare’s writings are peppered with great, evil characters, such as Lady MacBeth. The same goes for Milton, whose greatest achievement was breathing life (and what awesome life!) into Satan himself. The plots of their and other great works, meanwhile, often deal with murder, jealousy, pride, and lust.

To write an Iago or a Lady MacBeth requires that the author enter the mind of that character and see as they would see. It requires an intimate understanding of evil, and a capability to visualize life as it would be lived by that character. What is needed, to quote the Rolling Stones, is some sympathy for the devil.

A corollary to the Iago problem is the Hamlet problem — the hero should have weaknesses and major character flaws. And these should be real, and often unresolvable, and not the obvious and farcial “flaws overcome on the way to becoming a better person” that we might see in church literature.

Latter-Day Saints are strongly discouraged from having attitudes or ideas that would allow them to draw a good Iago or a good Hamlet. Doubt? The ability to think about things from an evil point of view? Those attributes are anathema to most members. In fact, there is just one character that most Latter-Day Saints could draw — a Captain Moroni. Captain Moroni may be a great part of the Book of Mormon, but there is a reason why great literature does not have many Moroni-esque figures. From a literary standpoint, they’re boring.

Not all LDS authors are incapable of writing evil characters. And those who are capable are not always received well. Orson Scott Card has crafted a few good evil characters — and you will hear church members disgustedly say “I can’t believe he wrote about that stuff!” Neil LaBute created some fun, unrighteous characters — and was censured for it. (One can only imagine what Shakespeare’s or Milton’s stake presidents would have said to them. “Bill, I can’t believe you’re writing this kind of stuff! Don’t any of your stories have good people and happy endings?”).

Such attitudes only reinforce the Iago problem. And they lend credence to the idea that, although church members say they want great LDS writers, what they really want are great LDS writers who have clear-cut good-guys and bad-guys, and where good always triumphs by the end of the book. We’re not looking for an LDS Shakespeare, it seems. We’re looking for an LDS Louis L’Amour.

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40 Responses to The Iago Problem

  1. lyle on January 31, 2004 at 2:29 am

    Hm. Great point Kaimi. In fact, I’ve often thought of re-writing some stories so that the bad things don’t happen…i.e. romeo & juliet would get to stay together; the hero and heroine dont’ sleep together til they get married; etc.

    on the other hand…if writing about evil, from a perspective of evil, i.e. which doesn’t see itself as evil at all, like ayn rand’s characters…kinda…I think Mormons can corner the market. or at least ex-mormons. if we believe that only sons of perdition are wholy out of salvational luck…an apostate surely has greater insight into such and could produce a fabulous supra-iago.

  2. brayden on January 31, 2004 at 2:49 am

    One of the great modern (or post-modern) crime noir authors, James Ellroy, once said that it takes a criminal to create a believable criminal. I believe him.

  3. Kristine on January 31, 2004 at 10:37 am

    A related problem is the correlation-influenced mentality that wants approval from some official or semi-official source for whatever we read.

    We can’t seem to get ourselves removed from the Deseret Book mailing list, and I can’t seem to stop myself from opening the catalogs when they arrive, so I recently read Sheri Dew’s promise of a renewed commitment to keep the pages of Deseret Book catalogs free of “anything contrary to gospel standards.” So, no more Gentile “Christian” romance novels where people kiss too passionately, no more Richard Paul Evans books which treat adultery in a less than obnoxiously moralistic fashion, etc. It’s not just writing about truly evil characters, but even reading about ordinary sinners that is discouraged.

    The trouble is that we have redefined “contrary to gospel standards” as merely violating some very narrow notions of (mostly) sexual purity. I’d argue that roughly half of what’s in Deseret Book’s catalogs is “contrary to gospel standards” because it’s just CRAP, but we’re willing to give it official sanction because it’s *safe*. As long as people define “good” reading material as anything free from profanity and illicit sex, then we won’t have an audience or patrons for good (and probably complicated or difficult) literature. Without people to pay for their work, potentially great LDS authors will be forced into other work, while the Susan McClouds of the world make a living off of Saints who are willing to feed their minds with cotton candy.

    (climbing down from my soapbox…)

  4. Kaimi on January 31, 2004 at 12:04 pm

    One of the great pieces of feminist thought is the idea of Shakespeare’s sister. What would have happened if Shakespeare had been a woman? In a (very abbreviated) nutshell, she would have had no role models, would have ben been criticized by society for wanting to write, and would not have had the success Shakespeare did.

    A similar exercise can be done for the query “What if Shakespeare had been a Mormon?” He would have been criticized for the tone and themes of his literature, members would have continually gossiped about him (“Did you hear about Bill, writing about adultery — again!”), and he would have been given a calling as Scoutmaster.

  5. Mardell on January 31, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    No scoutmaster has to much responsiblity. He would be given assistant building cleaning coordiantor.

  6. Ben on January 31, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Kristine: AMEN! Deseret Book sent out a long electronic survey, and I let them know (constructively, of course) what I thought of their selection.
    I applaud Orson Scott Card and his books. He has a defense of himself (and his evil characters) and E. Packer’s talk on the “arts” in “A Storyteller in Zion.”

  7. brayden on January 31, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    In my last visit to Deseret Book I noticed that, although there was no Orson Scott Card or Richard Paul Evans (at least his latest book) to be found, you could buy a copy of Sean Hannity’s latest.

  8. ben on January 31, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Hmm. They still have Card on-line.
    http://deseretbook.com/search?search=orson+card

  9. cooper on January 31, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    PLUHEEEEASEE!!!! Let’s just rename this thread “time to bash Deseret Book”. The relevance of bringing in Deseret Book to this discussion is about as good as if I discussed the merits of my brand new mini cooper!

    Deseret Book is an arm of the church. It’s responsibility is to uphold the gospel and support gospel standards. While I agree that there are too many “Charly”s out there – I have to admit Deseret book has its place. However, I spend far more money at Barnes and Noble throughout the year than I ever spend at a church bookstore.

    Let’s talk about the subject. I don’t agree that you have to be evil to write about it. The pendulum has swung far too much to one side in the way to portray evil. It does not take blatant representations of gross (read blood and gore) or sexual behaviors to introduce evil into a subject. It is the good writer that can do it without being obvious. Why was Hitchcock so successful?

    Possibly the “lack of time” is the reason for no truly good Shakespeares. Or maybe, just maybe, the formula for success now days is instant gratification. The “Richard Evans” of the world have figured out the formula for making a quick buck and moving on to the next novelette. With that in mind, and the need to provide for ones family, we must remember that we could have a Shakespeare in the house. He or she’s just not dead yet. Shakespeare was not appreciated for his work when he was alive nearly as he was and is now.

  10. Mardell on January 31, 2004 at 3:12 pm

    As saints we will never only feast on cotton candy and Deseret Book until they stop selling scriptures will never get rid of violence and sexually stories completely.

    We have been commaned to search, ponder and pray about the scriptures, one of the most violent set of books I have ever read. They never go into great detail about the gore and sex but it is still definetly there.

    This morning I heard my two kids making up a story. The bad guy was Darth Vader and the two good guys were Luke and Ammon. Luke cut off his hands and Ammon cut off his arms. It was quite a story. So the question is all of this violence ok for kids. I often wondered if I should just tell my kids the non-violent stories from the Book of Mormon, but the truth is most of the stories include murder, maiming, or war: and the Bible is even worse. I have just decided to tell all of the stories and do lots of explaining. So needless to say my kids good guys do a lot of cutting of arms and heads like Ammon and Nephi when they make up their own stories.

  11. sid on January 31, 2004 at 3:17 pm

    Ok this viewpoint from a former frat-boy, and writer wanna-be ( in fact, I actually called the Church’s 800 # when I wasin a drunken stupor watching late-nite TV with a couple of frat-brothers at the Univ of Michiagn!!!) Anyways, my impression has been that some aspects of the LDS lifestyle are not conducive to making great writers of modern literary fiction. Mainly, the emphasis on leading clean, Scripture-inspired lives seems to make a lot of people very circumscribed in their lifrstyle choices, and most importantly, in their thinking. Which is not to say that there are no modern LDsliterary writers these days, but, they are few in number, and havent made it big yet.
    Brady Udall is one very good LDs writer, who, the last I knew, was teaching at Southern Illinois univ.
    Check out his books- “letting Loose the Hounds’ is a collection of short-stories, and “The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint” is a very good novel.

  12. brayden on January 31, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    Okay, so maybe I overstated it a bit. I don’t think you have to be a murderer to write about murder. I was just quoting Ellroy who obviously understands the nature of crime, deceit, and perversion with more subtlety and profundity than Mary Higgins Clark (blah!). I haven’t read any sort of analysis on this, but it seems that most successful crime authors have had some sort of personal experience with that side of life.

    Perhaps all that is required is that the author be a student of crime and evil. Take Hitchcock. The Spoto biography makes it pretty clear that this was a man who was obsessed with sexual perversions, deceit, and intrigue. Perhaps Mormons just don’t think about this sort of thing enough to make really good students of evil. We tend to shun evil (rightly so I suppose) rather than invite it in our lives to observe close-up. I have no problem with that tendency (I don’t want my kids to become overly-obsessed with evil and death), but consequently that means that Mormons have a more simplistic (naive maybe) understanding of this darker side.

    Hey, let’s all be friends. I shop at Desert Book too.

  13. Kristine on January 31, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    cooper–Deseret Book is relevant to the discussion because we were discussing Mormon arts and letters. Deseret Book publishes much of what is written by and for Mormons these days, and certainly could be one place to look for good Mormon literature, if, in fact, supporting and promoting good Mormon literature were one of their aims. I was contending that their aim is more to provide safe entertainment for Saints, and that they therefore do not offer encouragement or support for writers who might want to explore questions of good and evil and human nature in the light of the gospel, if those explorations included difficult and controversial ideas, or convincingly drawn evil characters. Part of the reason there’s little really excellent Mormon literature is undoubtedly the lack of a market for it, and Deseret Book’s philosophy tends to exaggerate that problem.

    You can disagree with me about the quality of what Deseret Book publishes, but I don’ t think you can dismiss it as irrelevant (especially not if you want to exalt it to “an arm of the church”–I’d argue that point, too, but you’re already plenty annoyed with me)

  14. Kristine on January 31, 2004 at 6:47 pm

    Also, it’s not true that Shakespeare was not appreciated till after his death. There are plenty of literary worthies who were recognized only posthumously (so the argument can stand, using a different example–Emily Dickinson, if you want to pick the most extreme case), but Shakespeare was quite popular during his lifetime.

  15. Dave on January 31, 2004 at 10:43 pm

    You can’t have art without artists, and LDS culture is too conformist to tolerate artists. Art reflects an artist’s view or impression of reality or society, but Mormonism is simply not much interested in how anyone else (least of all an artist) views the world or the people in it. Instead, Mormonism tells people how they are supposed to view the world–anyone espousing an original viewpoint is simply out of step and a threat to orthodoxy.

    I suppose you could argue any artist gets rejected by their culture–thus, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a book you likely won’t find on the shelves at Deseret Book) the artist goes into exile. Even so, LDS culture seems especially inhospitable to art.

    I will anticipate Nate’s rejoinder by agreeing in advance that Mormonism has created a fair collection of imagery and illustration, some of which he posts on T&S from time to time. It certainly celebrates Mormon themes, and has value whether it qualifies as Art with a big A or not (an aesthetic question others can address better than I).

  16. Clark Goble on February 1, 2004 at 12:25 am

    While I tend to agree Mormon culture doesn’t foster the kind of focus that artistic greatness demands, I think you may be going a tad far Dave. I should add that perhaps “artistic greatness” is a little overvalued, given the significant sacrifices most artists make towards friends and family. A friend of my family was on track to be a rather notable concert pianist but gave it up because, in his words, it became a choice between career and family. When you choose career in those situations you typically lose your family. (One way or an other)

    I also think that the “culture” of artistic greatness, including Shakespeare, tends to work against active Mormons. There are exceptions, often “discovered” after their death. But they are rare.

  17. Jim F. on February 1, 2004 at 12:47 am

    If art requires non-conformity, what explains medieval art? Giotto surely counts as an artist, and medieval art isn’t the only period in which conformity was compatible with great art. Renaissance artists weren’t noted for their non-conformity. Romanticism seems to be the origin of the idea that art requires non-conformity.

  18. Dave on February 1, 2004 at 5:17 am

    Clark, I guess I would agree that Mormons try to avoid the obsessions that seem to drive most artists. So perhaps the supposed lack of Mormon artists is simply a reflection of our overall groundedness and sound mental health.

    Jim F., I’m not sure I agree that broad historic periods (medieval, Renaissance, Romantic) are the proper comparison for the Church, a highly corporate institutional structure. Better would be a modern business corporation or the US military. Corporations buy art but they don’t produce any. “Military art” is, as far as I know, an empty set. And both corporations and the military are highly conformist organizations.

  19. Renee on February 1, 2004 at 11:07 am

    A modest proposal: Some stories don’t need to be told.

    Writing about evil can be done in a way that isn’t excessively vile, graphic, and without consequence. I’ll take a good L0TR movie that shows good vs evil any day over the LaBute films I’ve seen. How much talent is required to have stories full of adulterous characters or scalpings without a rich plot? Is LaBute really in the same league at Shakespeare?

    How few *really great* writers there are? The only ones mentioned in the post died hundreds of years ago. It should not be a surprise that none are LDS. I can’t think of any great Lutheran fiction writers either. Bookshelves are full of average writers. This is not unique to us.

    What kind of evil are you looking for? How evil is evil enough? I never saw “American Psycho” but from what I heard (from non-LDS people)it was absolutely sick. I did see “The Cell” and I’ve regretted it ever since. The more these type of images are thrown out there, the more our society is desensitized to evil. There is a pervasive amount of this portrayal of evil.

    If all you’re after, however, is the quality of Shakespeare or Milton, it’s not a Mormon thing, it’s simply a rare human thing.

  20. ady hahn on February 1, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    I have to agree with Renee. Literary genuis is a rare gift. But we can’t generalize and say that great writers can’t be religious or they must be well-aquainted with evil. Some great writers were good Christians e.g. Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I think a great writer just needs to be able to understand evil and good and be able to describe it well.

    Also, I think there needs to be a bit of darkness or the dark side of humanity in great works of literature because that is what life is about. A lot of LDS literatue can be sappy, cheesy, and unrealistic which can be a turnoff to some of us.

    I do write a little poetry now and then and I’ve found my best poems were those about hard times in my life, sad things or darkness if you will. I can’t write happy poetry unless it’s about nature because it sounds cheesy and trite. Those that can write happy and uplifting literature that is also high quality have a gift.

  21. Bob Caswell on February 1, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    When reading Kaimi’s post and some of the comments, I can’t help but feel like we really want some Mormon artist to be popular in the “outside” world. There’s this undertone of “Orson Scott Card doesn’t count”.

    Is it because we are ashamed that someone like Orson Scott Card who, as I understand, has been excommunicated a couple times, is in running for most popular (from the world’s point of view) Mormon artist/author?

    I feel like many of you want an Orson Scott Card who is “approved” by the Church, immensely popular in the “outside” world, and is also your Stake President.

    Well, my opinion is that nothing even close to that will ever happen.

  22. Kristine on February 1, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    Renee, you seem to be arguing against some notion of the graphic portrayal of violence or evil that I don’t think anybody else is defending. A more interesting angle maybe would be to ask why Mormon artists like Neil LaBute or Brian Evenson who do decide to examine “the dark side” are drawn to such extremes.

    Dave: there are plenty of great artists who are also thoroughly churched in any era you want to choose–J.S. Bach, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.B. Yeats, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor. How many do you need?

    It is true that a Romantic, countercultural hero-artist is unlikely to emerge from a systematic religion, but so what?

  23. Bob Caswell on February 1, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    Kristine-

    “It is true that a Romantic, countercultural hero-artist is unlikely to emerge from a systematic religion, but so what?”

    So what? I thought that this issue was what the whole post was about. Are you saying, “let’s not worry about it and move on” or something else?

  24. Kristine on February 1, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    I’m saying we don’t need Romantic countercultural hero-artists. Stodgy, sedate churchman artists like J.S. Bach would do nicely, I should think.

  25. cooper on February 1, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    Kristine – the des book insertion comment is relevant because des book does not create authors. The sell lds themed books and a smattering of others. If a writer writes lines worthy of reading – an audience he will find. des book or not.

    Annoyed? Not I, entertained possibly.

  26. Kristine on February 1, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    cooper–I just realized what’s wrong–I’m thinking of overtly Mormon-themed literature, for which there’s little market outside of DB. Obviously, a Mormon author writing for a national audience could (indeed would have to) be published by somebody else. Most notable Mormon authors have gone this route.

    Still, I think DB could ease the time and financial pressures on Mormon writers and go a long way towards creating a Mormon audience for really good stuff by making a serious commitment to Mormon-themed writing that meets high literary standards.

    I don’t think we disagree about Mormons writing for a national audience–it would be entertaining to think Des. Book important in that context.

  27. Grasshopper on February 1, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    Bob, Orson Scott Card has never been excommunicated from the Church. I don’t think he’s ever been *close* to being excommunicated. As far as “approved” by Church: he wrote the script for the Hill Cumorah Pageant and serves faithfully in his ward. He also runs an LDS-related website and discussion forum at http://www.nauvoo.com — where participation requires agreement with a statement of belief about the Church. He has never been a stake president, as far as I know, but I seriously doubt that it’s a question of worthiness.

    I don’t think there has ever been someone who fits “a faithful Latter-day Saint who is also an excellent writer and popular in the world outside the Church” more than Orson Scott Card.

    (And no, I’m not related to him — just another fan. :-) )

  28. Bob Caswell on February 1, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    Grasshopper-

    Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I also love many of Card’s other books and especially his short stories. I’ve been to a couple writers’ workshops where he was present. I think the man is absolutely brilliant.

    I’m happy to hear that he has not been excommunicated. As it is said in Casablanca, “I was misinformed”. No really, Grasshopper, it’s probably none of my business whether or not he’s been excommunicated. Ever since I was interested in Card (starting back in junior high) I have heard rumor after rumor suggesting he had been excommunicated. I’ve even had people tell me to be careful how much Card I read… they wouldn’t want me to go inactive. So this is all very intriguing to me, the fact that you say he’s never been excommunicated and the fact that I heard this dozens of times growing up. At this point in my life, I’m more inclined to believe you Grasshopper, though I’ve never had proof either way. What I’m saying is that I hope you’re right.

    About the Stake President reference… there’s nothing special about it to suggest that artistic writers who are Stake Presidents would be any better. I just used it as an example to illustrate how sometimes I feel Mormons really really want an influential person on the inside of Mormonism to be the famous “outside” Mormon. Meaning, if Oaks wrote a fictitious novel that was widely popular outside the Church, members would be excited because it’s someone who they love inside the Church that’s famous outside. Sometimes (and I know I may be exaggerating and stereotyping) I feel the higher up in the Mormon hierarchy the artistic writer is, the more likely members will be less skeptical and actually read those “worldly” books he/she has written. So what I’m indirectly saying is that members of the Church don’t give Card enough credit because he’s fairly low in the Mormon influential sphere as opposed to his wide success outside of it.

  29. sid on February 1, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    It is possible to be a faithful, Mormon, and yet be a writer in the modern literary fiction world, and be successful at it, For example, again, I bring up brady Udall, from the Udall clan of Arizona. Brother Udall went to BYU for his bachelor’s and to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and he has written a bunch of stuff including 2 full books that have been critical successes. he is a Primary Teacher in his Ward the last time I talked to him, and I dont think being a successful writer and being a faithful Mormon are incompatible. Just my 2 cents

  30. Bob Caswell on February 1, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Sid-

    Thanks for the example. I completely agree with you that “being a successful writer and being a faithful Mormon are NOT incompatible”. I just feel that it’s not very likely, but maybe you proved me wrong. Here’s some questions I have for you:

    What does Udall write about? Is his audience only Mormons or everyone? Does he write anything controversial like Card? Nothing meant by that last one, I’m just curious.

  31. Clark Goble on February 2, 2004 at 2:18 am

    Success and faithfulness certainly aren’t incompatible. Perhaps success in the *artistic community* and faith are, however. One need only look to LaBute or Evenson in that regard. (And that is without associating blame to either side – merely as highlighting the essential tension between the two communities)

    I should also add that one shouldn’t confuse success and greatness. Card is a good and successful author. I’m not sure I’d characterize him as a great artist in the sense we are speaking of. Which is not to disparage him in the least. I’m sure he himself would be the first to recognize a difference between himself and say Shakespeare, Tennyson, Dante or others.

    Do I think the Mormon culture could produce a great artist? Perhaps. I do not think, as Dave alluded, that mental stability automatically makes for poor art. I think there have been many great people who were also great artists. However it must also be noted that many were also rather unbalanced in various ways. There have, of late, been interesting speculations as to why this might be. I’d simply point out that one can suffer mental difficulties and be a faithful Mormon. So I’m not sure this is really a useful avenue of discussion.

    The reason Mormons have difficulty being great artists is, as I mentioned, their callings to their family and perhaps even their church duties. Jim brought up medieval and Renaissance art. I’ll merely mention that in most cases the great artists were sponsored by rich patrons. Often those who were not sponsored were the ones who had to sacrifice the most for their art. And those are the people we probably have moral difficulties with.

    The problem is therefore our economic system of how artists are rewarded and sustained.

    Someone brought up corporations as if they only buy art and never produce it. Might I suggest this is misplaced? Without corporations many artists would never have the means to be artists. And if Mormon artists have a problem, it is probably because of the lack of corporate patronage…

  32. Adam Greenwood on February 2, 2004 at 8:23 am

    Clark,
    Nate can comment on this better than I, but it seems to me that the visual arts have been flourishing of late, partly because the Church has been paying for more of it.

    Kaimi,
    If you’re arguiing that LDS can’t write fiction because they feel that portraying evil is wrong, I think you’re mistaken. You’re setting up a false dichotomy between 1) engaging, realistic portrayals of evil and 2) fiction that sees good as good and ultimately victorious. Lady Macbeth is a case in point. Not only is she clearly evil, and grippingly so, she also gets what’s coming to her.

    If you’re arguing that many LDS, born and bred, don’t have enough experience with evil to portray it well, you may be right. I’d like to think otherwise, that everyone has enough experience with themselves to understand evil, but I’m just not sure. It is true that growing up LDS has surrounded me with a remarkable string of decent people, which possibly makes it a harder imaginative leap for me to do Lady Macbeth, e.g.

  33. sid on February 2, 2004 at 11:03 am

    I dont buy the argument that great literature or art has to involve writing about or portraying evil in some form. Human beings say, do, are involved in multiple complex situations, and LDS folks can write about those situation in very interesting ways. Great literature and great art isnt only about depicting human evil. For example, i am reading hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Now, why shouldnt a mormon be able to write about the situations Hemingway addresses in this book? A devout Mormon might not have depicted the pre-marital sex, but, could have written about the relationship in a different, but in an equally compelling way. Other t han that, what else?

  34. Nate on February 2, 2004 at 11:44 am

    Kristine: From some discussions that I have had with mucky-mucks at DB, my impression is that it is financially in trouble. I doubt a Chapter 11 is in the offing, if for no other reason than I suspect that the church would intervene to keep that from happening. (But perhaps I am wrong.) Thus, I am extremely skeptical that DB has the financial resources to promote high-brow Mormon writing out of some sense of citizenship. Just because it has a corporate charter, slick advertising brochures, and official letterhead, doesn’t mean that it has spare cash. Interestingly, however, I have heard that DB IS interested in acting as an agent to get potentially high quality Mormon authors placed with mainline publishing houses. At least this is what I have heard from Diedre Paulsen, who runs the writing fellows program at BYU.

    Dave: The claim that “true” Art is produced only by inconoclastic individualists is sufficiently parochial, historically speaking, that I won’t spend much time on it. As Jim and Kristine have pointed out, this role is a creation laregly of Romanticism, and it simply cannot be used very productively to discuss whole swaths of art history. Not only does it relegate the artists of the middle ages and the renessiance to the status of “mere illustrators,” it also cannot account for folk art, and virtually all of the art produced in tribal and non-western societies. Thus, there is not only a certain historical blindness to the concept, but there is also a latent racism and misygonism as well.

    The world at large: One interesting question, however, is why Mormonism has been more successful producing quality works in some mediums rather than others. For example, there have been a couple of first rate Mormon sculptors (Cyrus Dallin, Arvard Fairbanks), some good Mormon painters (Tiechart, Culmer, etc.), and some wonderful examples of Mormon architecture (Salt Lake Temple, Alberta Temple, some of the pioneer tabranacles — Preston, Paris, etc.). On the other hand, Mormon literature has not been all that thick on the ground. I think that something like Kaimi’s intuition is probably behind this divide.

    Finally, if you do look at the written production of latter-day saints one genre dwarfs all others in terms of sheer volume: sermons. It is worth remembering that sermons can also be judged and appreciated as literary works. Think of the writing of John Donne or Martin Luther King, Jr. I wonder which sermons (if any) we might put forward on the basis of their literary — rather than theological or homeletic — quality.

  35. Mary on February 2, 2004 at 11:46 am

    Bob, about your question concerning Udall’s work:

    I’ve only read The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint and the book was published by a mainstream publisher (W. W. Norton). There is Mormonism in the book in that Edgar is placed in a Mormon foster family. He eventually gets baptized and the text is peppered with Mormon terms, references and situations. But Edgar is an interesting character. He isn’t a sterotypical Mormon. You asked if his writing is controversial? My mom would think Edgar’s excessive masturbation during his teenage years to be “over the top.” Edgar comes from a violent place and the book is full of violence that the kids in the state home dish out on each other. It is an interesting, thought provoking and very funny novel. I don’t think non-Mormon audiences would think of it as controversial.

  36. clarkgoble on February 2, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    Perhaps the visual arts are improving. I didn’t know the church was funding more of it. Perhaps we’ll have something like the late 19th century where the church paid people to study great art.

    We do have some good art. For every Provo or Jordon temple we have a Cardston or Salt Lake City.

    But do we have *great* art? I don’t think we do yet.

  37. Judy Millard on February 5, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    There is a picture at the top of this page showing men in jail/black and white suits. Can you give me info about it, who they are and when it was taken? I have a picture like that and have tried to find the names of the people. Your assistance will be helpful. Thanks so much

  38. Judy Millard on February 5, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    There is a picture at the top of this page showing men in jail/black and white suits. Can you give me info about it, who they are and when it was taken? I have a picture like that and have tried to find the names of the people. Your assistance will be helpful. Thanks so much

  39. Judy Millard on February 5, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    There is a picture at the top of this page showing men in jail/black and white suits. Can you give me info about it, who they are and when it was taken? I have a picture like that and have tried to find the names of the people. Your assistance will be helpful. Thanks so much

  40. [...] a fascination with chopping . . . (Note: An earlier version of this tale was related in comments, earlier this year, by a cute girl.)
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